By Sarah Dobson
Teacher quality varies considerably across Canada but school boards could significantly improve the quality of classroom instruction by introducing a credible, effective system of teacher evaluation, according to a report commissioned by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
“Education systems do not strategically manage their human capital. Human resources policies in our school systems are more often guided by historical tradition and bureaucratic expediency, rather than by a devotion to excellence and effectiveness. These ingrained practices constitute a significant drag on the quality of teaching in our schools,” said Sachin Maharaj, author of the report.
In Effective Management of Human Capital in Schools, he highlights apparent problems around hiring, teacher evaluations and pay, and makes several recommendations for improvement.
And there’s a lot of truth to the report’s assessments, said Paul Bennett, founding director of Schoolhouse Consulting and adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
“There’s been a tendency to depend on schools and principals to oversee teacher development and I think, in many, many ways, the teachers’ association, feds and unions have essentially been managing most of the profession,” he said.
“A lot has been delegated to them and they frankly have little or no appetite for improving the quality of teaching or indeed seeing incentives built in which are tied to evaluation.”
That’s why it’s encouraging that chief executives are realizing that improving education means focusing on improving teacher quality, he said.
“This is the first sign that they’re embracing a new way of looking at educational reform.”
But the report misses the mark in terms of how we should make sure we have good teachers, said Marianne Larsen, a professor in the faculty of education research at Western University in London, Ont.
“In every profession, you’re going to have bad apples — that just goes without saying. It’s way too easy to blame teachers for the problems we have in our school system, and I am not convinced that there is a crisis about the quality of our teachers in our schools,” she said.
In looking at seniority-based hiring, the assumption is teachers with more experience are more effective. Yet there is no empirical evidence to support this view, said Maharaj, a Toronto teacher and education researcher.
While effectiveness tends to increase during a teacher’s first few years on the job, teacher effectiveness then typically plateaus and sometimes even declines, he said.
As a result, hiring should be based on merit, not seniority, said Maharaj.
“By undermining the authority of principals to select teachers who are best suited to their schools, and by denying employment opportunities to talented but less experienced young teachers, seniority-based hiring ultimately results in less effective schools.”
When it comes to assessing teachers, the report lists numerous problems such as evaluations that are not representative of actual teaching performance, infrequent evaluations, ratings that don’t differentiate performance, improperly trained evaluators, a lack of consequences and a lack of ties to professional development.
To respond to these issues, school administrators should receive more training, evaluations should include multiple classroom observations and impartial observers should take part, student feedback should be incorporated into the evaluations, evaluations should be done more frequently and a multiple-level scale should be used, said Maharaj.
People often argue that evaluations take up too much time and resources, he said, while teachers’ unions say they single out bad teachers.
“You need to have that —some accountability to make sure teachers are maintaining a high standard of teaching. But that misses the point because evaluations aren’t just useful for worse teachers, (they’re for) everyone… all teachers in the profession can benefit from regular, rigorous feedback about their performance.”
And with a two-point scale, everyone is basically evaluated the same — as satisfactory or non-satisfactory, said Maharaj.
“It doesn’t really give you a lot of useful information about how to improve that performance.”
Teachers, like all professionals, should be subject to more regular, more meaningful evaluations and rewarded in a far different way, said Bennett.
However, the report has its faults, he said, citing best practice in the United States where evaluations involve multiple measures and extensive professional development.
“It’s a panoply of approaches together, developed over time, not a one-shot thing.”
But it depends on how the two-tier evaluations are being used, said Paul Olson, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society in Winnipeg.
“If a school district is using them for questions about retention — you know, do you still have a job next year — then frankly a binary does it: You’re either good enough or you’re not.”
Some school divisions in Manitoba use a multi-level approach, he said, and the process around evaluations involves several meetings, class observations and debriefings.
“The notion of some cheap one-off is completely alien to me, I’ve never heard of that process happening.”
Ensuring there are good teachers in the classroom involves a complex of processes that can’t be measured through standard assessments, said Larsen, such as rapport with students and a love of learning.
And society as a whole has to start trusting teachers, treating them as professionals and providing them with the best possible training and professional development throughout their careers, she said.
“It simply reflects to me a thinking, an assumption, that schools are run like businesses… and education is unlike business — you can’t quantify teaching.”
On the pay side of things, the best-paid teachers earn between $80,000 and $100,000. But, for the best teachers, these numbers are too low, said Maharaj in his report.
“Great teachers have been shown to increase the lifetime earning of each of their students by an average of $25,000, which translates into an increase of $600,000 in economic gain for a class of 24. In purely economic terms, therefore, one could conclude that a great teacher is worth far more to society than he or she is currently paid.”
However, the way teachers are paid in Canada — using a single salary schedule — needs improvement, he said. This approach standardizes pay based on academic credentials and years of experience, and while this is simple to administer and objective, it has outlived its usefulness, said Maharaj.
Under this pay system, there is no incentive for teachers to try more challenging settings or improve performance in the classroom, he said.
“There is no obvious reason why teachers should receive automatic yearly pay increases — and why a lazy and ineffective teacher should be paid the same as a hardworking, dedicated and effective teacher. Excellence goes unrewarded, mediocrity goes unaddressed.”
Instead, teacher evaluations should be linked to progression on the salary grid, said Maharaj, and performance-based teacher compensation plans should be used.
However, school boards should not attempt to tie teacher pay to student outcomes, he said.
The recommendations are similar to an Australian model by Stephen Dinham, chair of teacher education at the University of Melbourne, which is a standards-based career ladder model, said Bennett. It suggests remuneration be tied to demonstrations of competence, tied to each stage of a teacher’s career.
“It’s to keep the mediocre teachers in a band so that they (end up finding) other employment and to keep rewarding those who are not only capable but seeking to excel and keep them.”
But the report’s suggestions around salaries reflect a mistrust of teachers and teachers’ federations, said Larsen, “a sense they are only concerned about teachers’ best interest and not students’ best interest.”
A classic part of HR discipline is tying compensation to performance, and while that’s perfectly reasonable for a car dealership, that doesn’t work for schools, said Olson.
“In our world, things are messy and they vary quite significantly from one kid to other, one child to another, one school to another, one classroom to another — so whatever metrics you think you have that will indicate how much a child learned with me as opposed to you in a different room is somewhere between the ridiculous and the sublime…. it’s completely divorced from reality.”
In any profession, there’s a need for improvement — but teacher quality in Canada is not a problem, he said.
“It’s a common problem we face in education that people try to import business practices and some of them make sense and some of them don’t,” he said.